Today, after nearly a half-century of decline, midwifery is undergoing a resurgence not only in Mennonite communities in Chihuahua, but all across Mexico, particularly in rural areas and Indigenous communities. A MacArthur Foundation report on public health in Mexico found, “In recent years, more than thirty organizations—from small, indigenous led organizations, to government institutions and non-profit organizations—have worked together to bring back professional midwives with the hopes of improving access and quality of care for mothers and babies and respecting the reproductive rights of women. This movement wants midwives to be more respected and acknowledged and for them to be seen as a safe and reliable alternative, which according to many women is more comfortable and dignified than current hospital methods, especially in rural areas. After education and promotion, the number of training programs has grown to more than a dozen and the number of clinics that work with midwives has doubled. Hundreds of seminars, workshops and basic courses have become available to health authorities and practitioners throughout the country.”1
Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery School, located in Campo 6 ½ in the Manitoba Colony, approximately twenty kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc, is part of this movement to provide “partos humanizados” or “humanized births” that respect and empower women to be active agents in their reproductive choices and experiences. Founded in 2016 by Katia LeMone, a nurse, midwife, and public health practitioner with more than thirty years of experience, Casa Geburt is at the center of reproductive and maternal care in the Tres Culturas region of Chihuahua. Originally from New Mexico, Katia relocated to the Mennonite Campos in 2015 at the request of members from the Mennonite community to train doulas and midwives in the Tres Culturas Region.
In 2018, she shared how her decision to become a midwife and to train midwives had its origins in an encounter she had with an Indigenous Rarámuri woman in Chihuahua in the late 1970s with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB)2:
In 1979, I was living in Parral and I met a Tarahumara [Rarámuri] woman on the street and she invited me to her house. We were talking and drinking tea and she asked me if I wanted to see her “instruments.” She showed them to me and said, “I’m a midwife. I help women give birth.” I was very interested and when I returned to the United States, I volunteered in El Paso with some friends of mine who were training to be midwives. At that time, I had a transformative experience during a difficult birth and I decided that I not only wanted to be a midwife, but I also wanted to train midwives. Women didn’t have and still don’t have access to the care that they need. I wanted to be an advocate for women and provide them with what they need. The important thing is women supporting women.
Katia had her first client from the Campos Menonitas in Chihuahua come to her midwifery practice in New Mexico in 2008, a Trajchtmoaka who was well known in the community, and by 2014, Katia had attended more than twenty births for Mennonite women from the Campos.
After a few years [of attending births], I was invited to come to the Campos Menonitas and teach some training classes in the community. The first time, I came for ten days to train doulas, but in December of 2015, I moved to the Campos to train midwives because there was a high demand for the course. My goal was to train women who could then later train others in Low-German. We have had two graduating classes from the midwife training course so far. The first class had fifteen participants and all of them were Mennonite, both liberal and conservative. There were students from such conservative communities that I was surprised that they wanted to come and train with us. In the second class we had 7 Mennonites, 2 women from the Rarámuri Pueblo and a Mestiza woman. In the second class I tried to integrate public health training in order to create relationships with churches and the community.
She continued, sharing about the challenges, successes and future goals for the work of Casa Geburt in the Campos Menonitas and the larger Tres Culturas Region.
We have really high maternal mortality rates and in this environment midwives and doulas have to be promotors of public health3. We have really big goals. I couldn’t have imagined what we have been able to accomplish. In 2016, we opened the Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School. We have partnerships with La Asociación Mexicana de Partería (The Mexican Association of Midwifery) and some hospitals. We want for every woman to have quality care in her mother tongue. This is what I would love to see. There is always the goal of raising up more Mennonite women to be educators, midwives, childbirth educators, breastfeeding educators, doulas. To raise up those ranks so that we have a doula for every woman. A midwife that every woman can feel comfortable with. And then, the Tarahumara [Rarámuri] community, and working with them. Developing our program so more of our programs can be in Spanish and Tarahumara [Rarámuri]. More of them can be in Low-German. Those are the things that are all really important to us. The ultimate goal would be to have a functioning school with dormitories that’s associated with the Maternity Center Clinic where women in any of these communities could come in, and get care by women from their community.
Clara Enns, a seamstress and midwife from the Swift Current Colony in the Mennonite Campos in Chihuahua, Mexico, was one of the first graduates from Casa Geburt’s Midwifery Training Program in 2016. She spoke with REBB about the importance of Low-German speaking midwives and doulas as public health practitioners, educators and advocates in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua4.
The return to midwifery is really modern in a lot of ways, but there also is a respect and a deep knowledge of the traditional, of what used to be. Deep down that makes sense to many of the traditional women. In our communities there’s a lack of information, a lack of education. Childbirth and women’s health in general, is not talked about. There’s very little knowledge. There’s a shame surrounding it. Women have lost the information they did have. Breastfeeding is completely a lost art for so many women here. The high rate of C-sections needs to change5. The World Health Organization guidelines are there and we need to change6. Mexico in general has a very, very high C-section rate, and is being pushed and incentivized to change that7. We Mennonites form a big part of that. The C-section rate in our communities is much, much higher than it is in general in Mexico in general8. A big part of it is language barrier. It may be the biggest one. We have a lot of traumatized women. We want to empower women in our community to take back what they need.
The fifth article in this series will feature first-hand accounts of present-day pregnancy, birth and post-partum care in Chihuahua’s Campos Menonitas, and will explore perspectives concerning midwifery within and outside the Campos, including the transcript from a segment that aired on the nationally syndicated news program El Milenio in early 2020 that featured Casa Geburt.
2. Katia LeMone, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
3. World Health Organization Maternal Mortality Rate for Mexico, 38/100,000 (2015).
4. Clara Enns, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
5. World Health Organization Estimate for Medically Necessary C-section Rate, 10-15% (2017); World Health Organization C-section Rate for Mexico, 45.5% (2017).
6. World Health Organization Statement on C-Sections, “While many women in need of caesarean sections still do not have access to caesarean section particularly in low resource settings, many others undergo the procedure unnecessarily, for reasons which cannot be medically justified. Caesarean birth is associated with short- and long-term risks that can extend many years beyond the current delivery and affect the health of the woman, the child and future pregnancies. These risks are higher in women with limited access to comprehensive obstetric care.”
7. Word Health Organization C-section Rate for the state of Chihuahua (2017), 37.6% (public facilities) 60% (private facilities).
In stark black and white, a photographer captures three Amish men clad in their dark hats and plain coats as they ascend the marble Supreme Court steps. It is a study in contrasts. The photographer snapped this picture during the 1972 proceedings of Wisconsin v. Yoder—a case involving the Amish and compulsory education. The Court unanimously ruled that education laws stood in violation of the Amish parents’ First Amendment rights to freely practice their religion. Wisconsin v. Yoder stands as a landmark ruling on religious liberty. But is religious freedom the only reason these fathers found themselves in this peculiar place?
Though religious liberty may be the reason provided when Yoder and company walked up those stairs, it would be a mistake to believe that the Court’s explanation is the only one. Since the 1910s, the Amish have endured fines and jail in an effort to educate their children. In reality, the steps these men took to the Supreme Court mark only the last stage in a civil dispute between the Amish and the government regarding education. One might assume, alongside the Court, that religious freedom—however amorphous the concept—serves as the primary lens through which to interpret Amish educational practices. However, I think that to more accurately understand Yoder, and conflicts about the Amish and compulsory education more broadly, the issue needs reorienting within earlier twentieth-century educational contests over state and parental authority. An examination of one of the earliest incidents of the Amish violating compulsory education laws illustrates this necessary context.
It’s 1915. Just southeast of Cleveland is the village off Middlefield, Ohio. East of the village, in the Hayes Corner district, sat the farm of Joseph W. Miller. He, his wife Salome, and their children formed part of the Old Order Amish community that settled in Middlefield around 1886.1 The Miller children, like many of their peers, attended school as often as the weather and farm work allowed. But that situation was changing.
Beginning in the 1890s, governments in the State of Ohio and across the country increased their oversight of public education. These top-down pressures blended with local interests to radically transform American public education. Through efforts like reforming rural schools and combating child labor through compulsory education laws, professional and lay reformers turned to public education to edify the state and society. “In the process,” observes historian Tracy Steffes, “they defined children’s education and welfare as a public interest that transcended the family and community and justified new state interventions.”2 Joseph W. Miller, and other parents like him, grappled with deteriorating parental rights over their children’s education.
In 1900, Middlefield Township, where the Miller children attended, contained eight school districts: one in the village and the others in the surrounding area.3 This organizational structure underwent a massive overhaul in 1914, when Ohio consolidated its school system, specifying core content and eliminating a majority of its one-room schoolhouses.4 Geauga County, and thus Middlefield Township, quickly complied with the new structure.5 For the first time, pupils needed to show competency in particular subjects and attend school regularly. The 1915-1916 school year would be different than any before.
Ohio law required that schoolchildren know “reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography, and arithmetic.”6 Yet the previous spring, Miller had heard something from his oldest daughter Mary that troubled him greatly. She had said that, in geography, she had been taught that the earth was round. Based on Revelation 7:1,7 Miller believed the earth was flat. He determined that, since Mary was 12, she did not need more schooling, especially since what she was learning conflicted with biblical teachings. So in the fall of 1915, when Miller sent his four school-age children off to school, Mary stayed home.
On October 14, 1915, Fred B. Hamilton, the Middlefield truancy officer, arrested Miller for failing to send Mary to school, and as a result, preventing her from taking the state content exam. Earlier that day, Hamilton deposed himself before the justice of the peace E.H. Brigden, stating:
On or about the 14th day of October 1915, at the County of Geauga aforesaid, one Joseph Miller, being then and there the parent, to-wit:- the father of one Mary Miller a minor between the age of eight and sixteen years of age, who [h]ad not passed a satisfactory 7th grade test in studies enumerated in section No. 7762 General Code, failed to cause said minor to attend public, private, or parochial school altho [sp] said Joseph Miller had been given notice by a truant office[r] as provided by law.8
As a result of Fred Hamilton’s testimony, Justice Brigden issued a warrant for Joseph Miller’s arrest. With Miller now in custody, Hamilton appeared before Justice Brigden, who “convicted, fined, and dismissed” Miller.9 However, the brevity with which Justice Brigden processed Miller obscures deeper issues at work.
Looking at the section violation with which Justice Brigden charged Miller provides a key into the case. Ohio first passed a compulsory education law in 1877, seeking to ensure that minors attended school for at least part of the year.10 Then, due to increased concern for child labor, Ohio passed an amended law in 1890.11 When states passed these laws, they fell into two categories, one being “laws regulating schooling and the curriculum,” which “proscribed” types of education, like private education, or “prescribed” the specifics of education, such as content areas to be taught.12
The 1910 General Code of Ohio contains a whole chapter on compulsory education, listing twenty-two sections of code. Justice Brigden indicted Joseph Miller for infringing upon Section 7762, which states that “All parents, guardians and other persons who have care of children, shall instruct them, or cause them to be instructed in reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography and arithmetic.”13 However, the next section of code stipulated that children attend school for a specific numbers of weeks.14 Thus, by charging Miller with disobeying Section 7762 instead of Section 7763, Justice Brigden framed the case as one regarding curricular content, rather than simple truancy. It was because Mary failed the state content exam that her father faced charges. Still, for the next month Miller refused to send Mary to school. So, on November 13, he again found himself at a hearing in Justice Brigden’s court.15 The State prosecutor, Hubert O. Bostwick presented his evidence against Miller, who was found guilty and fined $20.16
Over the next several months, Miller found himself party in a series of motions, trials, and appeals over his daughter’s education. Two lawyers took Miller’s case, navigating it from the Township level, to the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas, and finally the state’s Court of Appeals. It generated interest from the Amish and “English” community alike.17 However, the trail on Miller’s case goes cold after April 7, 1916, with one exception. An undated journal entry from the Ohio Court of Appeals says the following:
Upon consideration thereof the Court finds that there was an error in the proceedings below in that the Justice of the Peace and the Court of Common Pleas failed to find that the complaint therein as filed did not constitute an offence against the laws of Ohio.
The judgment of the Court of Common Pleas and of the Justice of the Peace is reversed and the plaintiff in error, Joseph Miller is discharged.
Reversing the earlier decisions, a three-judge panel reviewed the evidence and ruled in Miller’s favor.18 I wonder, if he had lost, whether Miller might have taken his case one more level to the Supreme Court of Ohio?
In pursuing legal recourse to prevent Ohio from mandating his daughter attend school and learn content that violated his beliefs, Joseph W. Miller mirrored the concerns of many other parents, though his identity as an Amishman infused his approach with particularities. Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists parents also contested the state’s power to abolish private education and set medical requirements for schoolchildren.19 The question of parental control of education remained very much in flux during the time of Miller’s trials.20
Ohio ruled on the constitutionality of compulsory education in the 1890 case Ohio v. Patrick F. Quigley, citing the logic of parens patriae, thus using parental neglect as the instrument to supersede parental authority in favor of the state best insuring the child’s welfare.21 By 1903, courts favored asserting the police powers of the Fourteenth Amendment as a method to curb parental control of education.22 This resulted in a blank check for state governments to dictate all aspects of educational policy.23 Though Miller eventually achieved a legal victory in 1916, the State of Ohio continued to consolidate and control education. Only in 1922 did the Supreme Court’s decision in Meyer v. Nebraska finally put a check on unlimited state control.
Miller’s identity as an Amishman imbued him with a particular worldview and educational philosophy, but in his attempt to preserve these ideals, he skirted the bounds of Amish tradition and discipline. As summarized by Steven Nolt, the Amish hold a premodern, communal worldview that stands in stark contrast to our own.24 The most basic unit in a community is the family, so the maintenance of the Amish way of life begins at home. According to Amishman Joseph Stoll, the Amish believe that the responsibility to educate children belongs to parents, not state-run schools.25 However, as historian Albert Keim stated,
“Consolidation appeared to the Amish as a major threat because it often ushered in new curricula and, in their view, faulty pedagogical methods…”26 While throughout the nineteenth century pubic education proved relatively compatible with Amish educational philosophy, by the early twentieth century that was no longer the case. This transition likely accounted for the mixed reports of Miller’s motivations for keeping Mary at home. One article cited the need for farm labor, the other religious reasons.27 Miller and other Amish joined their neighbors in asserting parental rights in education, but soon state power created a profound cultural shift that eventually overwhelmed most opposition. Nevertheless, Amish religious beliefs enabled their persistent challenge of the state’s authority.
Even as he stood firmly within the Amish tradition, Miller’s actions during his trial transgressed normative behaviors within Amish communities. First, he accepted legal counsel to argue his case. It’s important to remember that the Amish, for reasons of faith, preferred not to hire attorneys. To do so would be participating in the “violence of the court system,” an objectionable practice in Amish communities.28 Though in later legal cases involving compulsory education some Amish hired attorneys, considering Miller’s case falls at the beginning of Amish struggles over education, to have lawyers present appears to be unprecedented behavior. Second, Miller chose to appeal his case multiple times. Typical Amish practice would have Miller accepting the decision of the court and moving on with his life. After all, he viewed himself as a subject rather than a citizen of the United States.29 Yet, in exceptional circumstances, if obedience violates the Amish faith, then resistance is justified.30 Miller and his community likely deemed this relatively new conflict over compulsory education as exceptional. Unknowingly, Miller and other early Amish opponents of compulsory education laid the groundwork for contesting the practice that would eventually carry them in the 1970s all the way to the Supreme Court.
While the Court’s 1972 decision in Yoder to view Amish noncompliance with compulsory education a matter of religious freedom is important, to use that as the only lens for understanding the conflict remains problematic. Doing so divorces the topic from its origins in an issue—parental control of education—not exclusive to Amish religious belief. Occurring within a period of educational transition, the negotiation of state versus parental rights was contested for all Americans regardless of religious affiliation. Centering parental rights as important to understanding Amish compulsory education also offers a possible explanation for why appeal to the First Amendment became their chosen recourse in Yoder. The most notable Supreme Court jurisprudence asserting parental rights in education—Myers v. Nebraska (1922) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)—concerned matters of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. However, the precedents established by both cases did not alleviate the conflict the Amish had with the state once compulsory education became entrenched in American public education. Instead, framing the matter as a First Amendment issue from which an assertion of parental rights emerged made for a viable constitutional case. Joseph W. Miller’s dispute with Middlefield Township over his daughter’s attendance and required content knowledge situates contests over Amish compulsory education as not only a matter of religious freedom, but also as an issue originating from the conflict over state and parental rights at the beginning of the twentieth century.
1. Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1992), 192. This group of Amish emigrants came from a larger community located Holmes County, Ohio. Frederick Stewart Buchanan, “The Old Paths: A Study of the Amish Response to Public Schooling in Ohio,” University Microfilms, Inc. (Ann Arbor, 1967), 7. A newspaper article lists the Millers’ residence as Hayes Corners. Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Amish May Build Own School since Court Fines One Geauga County Members of Religious Sect,” December 12, 1915: 1, 4.
2. Tracy L. Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012), 2.
6. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code of the State of Ohio Being an Act to Revise and Consolidate the General Statutes Ohio Passed (Columbus: HeinOnline, 1910), Section 7762, 1643.
7. “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” King James Version.
8. Deposition transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, [undated].
10. Steven Provasnik, “Judicial Activism and the Origins of Parental Choice: The Court’s Role in the Institutionalization of Compulsory Education in the United States, 1891-1925,” History of Education Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 311-47, 320.
13. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7762, 1643.
14. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7763, 1643. This amounts to a period of 120 days, 60 days shorter than the contemporary requirement of 180 days.
15. Hearing transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.
16. U.S. Census Bureau,Year: 1910; Census Place: Chardon, Geauga, Ohio; Roll: T624_1185; Page: 14B; Enumeration District: 0056; FHL microfilm: 1375198. Hearing Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.
17. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 18, 1915: 2. “Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record, December 17, 1915.Criminal Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 19, 1915, 2. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.
24. “1) That ideas expressed in words are brighter and truer than ideas which take their form in personal and community life 2) That people who accept the ideas of the eighteenth century’s so-called Age of Reason are the “enlightened” ones of the world 3) That the individual is the supreme unit, individual rights the most sacred rights, and human life the richest when individuals are most autonomous.” Nolt, 196, citing the work of Theron Schlabach.
25. Joseph Stoll, “Who Shall Educate Our Children?,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 16-42 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 18.
26. Albert N. Keim, “From Erlanbach to New Glarus,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 1-15 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 14.
27. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.“Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record.
28. Nolt, 231. In general, Amish try to avoid all legal entanglements. They will not sue, and the community, not the courts, sorts out quarrels between Amish members. See: Paton Yoder, “The Amish View of the State,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 23-42 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 36-38.
29. Donald B. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 3-20 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 14. Yoder, 37.
30. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” 14. Yoder, 37.
“We thank God that we are living in a land where the voice of the people is respected without thought of armed opposition. There were exciting times, at places— some “mud-flinging,” bitter disputes, charges and counter-charges, etc.; — but no sooner had the people spoken than there was a general acquiescence in the result. This is something to be encouraged, a condition for which to be thankful.”1
These are the opening words from Daniel Kauffman’s editorial in the November 11, 1920 edition of the Gospel Herald. On November 2, 1920 Warren G. Harding was elected president by a landslide, earning seven million more votes than his opponent James Cox.2 Reading these words a century later, it seems that politics has not changed much (although this election has seemed especially fraught and contentious). The relationship between American Mennonites and politics, however, has greatly shifted in the intervening hundred years. The recent presidential election in the United States has demonstrated the depth of division in political perspectives in our country. The 1920 election emphasized a different divide for Mennonites–that between the church and the world.
The relationship of Mennonites and politics has a complex and nuanced history, but it is fair to say that historically Mennonites have eschewed politics, seeking to be “in the world, but not of the world”, a calling rooted in New Testament verses including John 15:19, John 17:14-16, and 1 John 2:15. John Redekop states in his article “Politics” on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that, “Concerning politics, the traditional Mennonite stance, despite some deviation and exceptions, may be described as separationist or apolitical.” But after discussing major shifts in attitude during the twentieth century, he concludes at the end of the article that, “the spiritual descendants of Menno are well on the way to becoming part of the general political establishment. Increasingly, in these free and prosperous lands, as they move up the socioeconomic scale, Mennonites are learning, for better or worse, to take political activism seriously.”3
Despite the difficult experiences of many Mennonite COs and the hardships of World War I, the 1920 presidential election seems to have been observed with detachment by many Mennonites. Daniel Kauffman, Gospel Herald editor, exhorts his readers to, “be equally zealous in their support of the cause of Christ and the Church” as the cause of a political candidate or ideal. He writes that, “In comparing issues, the most striking issues of the recent campaign were as nothing compared with the great issue of salvation.”4 A recurrent theme in the article is that to put stock in the world is to rely on things that are temporary, transient, and tenuous, but to place one’s allegiance in God is to ensure eternal salvation.
The intervening century has brought enormous change and challenge, and at each turn Mennonites–particularly those in MCUSA and other similarly progressive bodies–have taken steps toward engagement with the world and with politics. In this recent election many Mennonites in good standing with their church campaigned for, voted for, or donated money to candidates and causes they believed in. To abstain from politics in our current political climate smacks of privilege; an acknowledgement that because of your race, religion, or socioeconomic status the success of either political party would have little to no impact on your life.
It is tempting to put our faith in civic action and political candidates, hoping that if only we could elect the right people they would promote peace and justice in our country. But Mennonites will never be fully in step with American politics, and American politics will never fully support Mennonite ideals. The national support for the military, focus on unlimited economic growth and consumerism, and the American myth of rugged individualism all run counter to core Anabaptist values of pacifism, economic and ecological stewardship, and community.
We have come too far as a nation and a church to return to the 1920 stance of detached observation, but we should remember that to become too comfortable in the world is to lose sight of our unique perspective as Anabaptist Christians. Perhaps it need not be the either/or dichotomy put forth by Daniel Kauffman in his 1920 editorial–in the last one hundred years many Mennonites found ways to genuinely engage the political world without sacrificing their faith. But when the election cycle has run its course, we shouldn’t forget that politics is just one avenue for change.
Daniel Kauffman wrote that “The essential difference between the Christian and the worldling- The first makes spiritual matters his first concern, counting the things of this world secondary. The second counts the things of this world first, making spiritual matters secondary.”5 We must continue to push for peace and justice in every aspect of our lives and remember that we are driven not by the highs of political victory but by humbly following Christ in daily life.
In his most recent book, World of Trouble, Richard Godbeer tells the story of Elizabeth and Henry Drinker, a respectable, upwardly-mobile Quaker couple in Philadelphia’s merchant class whose lives were inextricably bound with the economic strife, social upheaval, political chaos, and violence of the American Revolution. Godbeer, a leading scholar of early American history and a Professor of History at the University of Kansas, “resists the familiar story of the American Revolution” by presenting it through the eyes of religious pacifists who remained neutral during the imperial crisis.1 This rich and striking narrative, intimately following the lives of Elizabeth (1735-1807) and Henry Drinker (1734-1809) for over fifty years, is reconstructed from dozens of Elizabeth’s diaries and thousands of letters that Elizabeth and Henry penned in their personal and professional lives. From such a unique vantage point, Godbeer lays bare a difficult reality of the American Revolution: its turbulence and violence were virtually inescapable, whether one wore a uniform or not. In this addition to recent scholarship on the violence of the American Revolution, Godbeer shows how Quakers experienced violence as Patriots suppressed dissent before, during, and after the war through threats, imprisonment, and even killings.2
Although the Drinkers were deeply affected by the decades of revolution, their lives were not entirely defined by it. Elizabeth and Henry lived before and after the Revolution—and even during the years of revolutionary upheaval, their day-to-day lives were not entirely halted. Reflecting this, Godbeer opens their story with the courtship and early married life of Henry Drinker and Elizabeth Sandwith. Married in 1761, the Drinkers’ first years together were marked by remarkable affection for each other and considerable anxiety about social, economic, and spiritual strictures. They wed at a time when the Society of Friends was becoming increasingly insular and sought to “reinvigorate their distinctive spiritual identity through a renewed stress on marriage within the faith.”3 Elizabeth knew the social and spiritual importance of marriage as well as Henry, but for her, as was the case for most women in her time, marriage also brought a significant loss of personal independence. Once married, Elizabeth spent the next twenty years becoming and being a mother—she was pregnant eleven times, but only five of her children reached adulthood. Henry, along with his business partner Abel James, spent the decades before the revolution building their transatlantic trading business and, like many Quaker merchants at midcentury, sought to “balance Quaker values with the practicalities and opportunities of international commerce,” which they achieved with mixed success.4 Henry and Elizabeth accumulated and displayed a great deal of material wealth, letting the religious scruples of outward simplicity fall away to demonstrate their upward mobility and gentility.
The conflicts between their Quaker conscience and the socio-political milieu became even more pronounced for the Drinkers beginning in the 1760s. Godbeer describes how their Quakerism influenced James and Drinker’s politics and business, which, as taxation and importation emerged as touchstones of revolution, were becoming increasingly entangled. The two Quaker merchants saw the royal government as the source of political salvation, rather than that of the crisis. Although they joined the boycott movement in opposition to new Parliamentary taxes, they hoped that such protests would lead to a peaceful resolution within the empire. However, their refusal to endorse heavy-handed threats and violence against royal officials, compounded with the widespread suspicion and resentment that many Pennsylvania Quakers faced, made James and Drinker visibly unpopular among Patriots. Patriotic hostility toward those who showed anything but unconditional support for revolution and independence reached a new height for Quakers in 1777 when Congress connected Quaker pacifism to loyalism and arrested Drinker and ten other leading Quakers, exiling them to Virginia. This move against these Friends was founded on decades of political conflict, accusations of hypocrisy, and suspicion toward Quakers as Pennsylvania became more religiously and ethnically diverse. It was these same pressures that factored into James and Drinkers’ decision to become tea consignees in the first place. Their year of exile was likely “monotonous and anxiety-ridden” for the Quakers. Although they were imprisoned far from home, Godbeer describes their time in captivity as “an extremely relaxed version of imprisonment, based on a gentlemen’s agreement that the exiles would not try to escape.”5 Meanwhile, Quakers and other perceived opponents to independence faced trials, prison, fines, forfeiture and destruction of property, and even execution during Philadelphia’s Continental occupation.
Elizabeth, too, was deeply affected by the throes of Revolution, but in different ways than her husband. From her copious diaries, Godbeer finds that Elizabeth’s wartime concerns lay primarily with “her husband’s situation, the safety of her own household, the fate of other Friends in and around the city, and the outrage at the cruelties inflicted by both sides in the conflict.”6 While Henry was in exile, Elizabeth was forced to quarter Continental and British soldiers in their home, deal with the supply shortages during the British occupation of Philadelphia (September 1777-June 1778), and cope with and protect her family from the persecution and violence that Continents exacted on Loyalist, neutral, and pacifistic Philadelphians once they regained control of the city. Godbeer argues that Elizabeth’s attention was not limited by any distinction of gendered spheres. Rather, he casts Elizabeth as a deeply politically-informed person who applied such knowledge to those affairs she was most familiar with and affected by. In fact, Elizabeth powerfully challenged Quaker sensibilities and American socio-political gender roles when she and three other Quaker women traveled to General George Washington’s headquarters in Valley Forge to parlay with Washington for her husband’s release from exile. In telling the Drinkers’ remarkable story, Godbeer keeps a constant eye on the Drinkers’ community of faith, declaring that the “distinct and deeply felt nationhood” of the Society of Friends that triggered so much outside resentment and hostility also brought a sense of “true freedom within themselves through trust in God” and “liberated from dependence on worldly comfort and security.”7
In his final chapters, Godbeer describes the Drinkers’ lives after the Revolution, which were unfortunately no less tumultuous than those before and during the war. Henry left his career as a merchant behind him in hopes of reinventing himself in order to, prove “his worth to the new republic and [show] that Quaker values could enrich the nation morally while also turning a handsome financial profit.”8 One such project was to invest in American maple sugar, which Drinker hoped would out-compete slave-produced sugar from the West Indies and undermine the entire slave trade. This and other ventures failed because, as Godbeer argues, Henry was a poor judge of character and far too trusting and forbearing with his investors and debtors, all qualities which left him ethically and financially spent.
Godbeer also traces Elizabeth’s difficulties in the new republic as a mistress and a matron. As in many households after the war, the domestic servants of the Drinker household were swept up in the liberating rhetoric of the revolution and began to expect different treatment—treatment which Elizabeth was reluctant to give. Her attitude toward her servants—Black or white, man or woman—“reflected a blend of maternal benevolence and distrustful condescension.”9 Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, while supporting abolition and free labor, Elizabeth held firm to her vision of society in which people knew their place and did not challenge their lot in life. Despite such tumult, Godbeer’s narrative emphasizes the centrality of spirituality, a strong faith community, and the persistence of the patterns of daily living in the Drinkers’ lives, even as they entered the final years of their life at the dawn of the nineteenth century.
World of Trouble forcefully and painfully confronts the fact that “however noble its official founding ideals, the United States was born in blood, its midwife a campaign of terror” (4). Moreover, as Godbeer elucidates, the writings of the Drinkers “remind us that the fraught political issues of their era had personal, spiritual, and emotional ramifications that played out in private as well as public spaces.”10 These powerfully important themes are woven into Godbeer’s wonderfully enjoyable narrative that sheds light on far more than the experiences of one Quaker family. A World of Trouble is not only a meaningful contribution to the scholarship of the American Revolution, but also offers a great deal to anyone interested in the contours of religious pacifism in early American life.
1 Richard Godbeer, World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey Through the American Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 8.
2 See, for example, T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2010) and Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2017).
In August 2018, Brethren in Christ History & Life published “Henry R. and Frances Rice Davidson: Life and Vision.” In that article I explore the contributions of my ancestor who became the first editor of the denominational publication that came into Brethren in Christ homes for one hundred and thirty-one years, from its launch in August 1887 until it was replaced in in 2007 by a periodical called In Part.1Publication is a milestone, not necessarily the end of the research process; and so I continue to puzzle over these ancestors lives. One question for me, still unanswered,2 is how did the Reverend Henry Davidson, of Scots-Irish Presbyterian descent, come to be ordained in 1846 as a minister in the tiny community of River Brethren, virtually unknown until 1860 when they identified as Brethren in Christ? How did his nearly seventy years of leadership, that I have argued was significant in bringing the denomination into nineteenth century evangelicalism, begin?3In this post I explore that question and offer suggestions as to why knowing this matters.
As I have been researching and writing on Henry Davidson how I have wished that he had preserved his experience of having “moved into the church,” as his friend and colleague William Baker put it.4 The only record we have, as far as I can find, is in family historian Earl Brechbill’s geneological history.5 I have long puzzled over this short acknowledgement: “Henry was ordained a minister in the Brethren in Christ church at the age of twenty-three.”6 His father Jacob, a farmer and millwright, was a minister of the United Brethren in Christ, and his grandfather Robert Davidson had been a Presbyterian minister. Not even Henry Davidson’s obituaries agree on his denominational history, with the Evangelical Visitor putting Henry’s father in the Brethren in Christ church, and the Wooster Weekly Republican saying he was a Presbyterian minister.7
The confusion is hardly surprising, with the influence of the German Pietist movement that reflected Enlightenment values of subjectification and emotion, and the variety of expressions of personal faith that arose, as individuals studied the Bible for themselves.8 In the immediate post Revolutionary era, the evangelical preaching of Reformed leader William Otterbein and Mennonite Martin Boehm gave rise to a number of denominations in the United States including Presbyterians, German Reformed, and Mennonites uniting into a body “vague and undefined” until they organized in 1815. This conglomeration, which identified as United Brethren in Christ, illustrates the freedom fostered by democracy and populism that Mark Noll has noted caused “the churches [to be] strongly identified with the common people.”9Adhering to no church doctrine beyond the New Testament, accepting all modes of baptism including sprinkling, pouring and immersion, the movement quickly spread, including to Western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County where the Davidsons lived.10
Henry Davidson’s silence about his experience and motives for moving from the United Brethren in Christ to the small enclave of German speaking “thrifty tillers of the soil” with their fear of “popularity of any kind,” reflects the practice of the River Brethren, thus named by outsiders because they baptized new members in the closest creek or river.11 When Henry joined their numbers in the 1840s, sixty years had passed since Jacob Engle and others had been baptized in the Susquehanna River, keeping who was first in their hearts to the grave.12 Evidently Davidson was attracted to this humble group, at that time virtually unknown, judging by John Winebrenner’s History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, first published in 1844. When Davidson “moved into the church,” to use Baker’s words, Winebrenner’s recently published history had missed them altogether. They were unique in the 1848 edition of the six hundred page compendium, with anonymous authorship by “A Familiar Friend,” whose six page article remains, in Brethren in Christ historian Carleton Wittlinger’s words, “the most reliable secondary source for early Brethren in Christ history.”13 No other group, including the Mennonites and the Amish, avoided identifying the author describing the polity, practice and history of their particular group.
Fast forwarding to August 1887 with the launch of the Evangelical Visitor, we can glean insight into the experience of early converts into the River Brethren. Davidson’s friend and colleague W.O. Baker, a medical doctor who practised medicine in Ashland, Ohio and preached for the congregation in Stark County, recounted his conversion and baptism three decades earlier in Sugar Creek, where it meandered by Wayne County’s Paradise, Ohio. Baker’s note that Henry Davidson, editor of the new paper, had been among those present in late February  at his baptism, confirms Davidson’s long history with the denomination.14
In my mind’s eye I see the senior minister Jacob Hoffman standing with red topped boots reaching his knees standing in the cold creek, possibly supported by an overhanging branch, baptizing the most recent convert to the small community of River Brethren. I see Henry Davidson, a young minister in the group, standing among others, uniform grey overcoats overlapping red topped rubber boots, large capes draping each man’s shoulders, broad brimmed hats in hand, witnessing this powerful moment when a new member submitted to the triune immersion that confirmed his conversion experience, a ritual done in a way that separated the River Brethren from other groups. Baptism in cold waters, the first time in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son, and finally in the name of the Holy Spirit, confirmed Baker’s commitment to living out his faith in this particular community of believers.15
It remains unclear exactly where Henry Davidson encountered the German community of River Brethren; perhaps it was in German township, located just south of Redstone township where the Davidson’s lived.16 Whatever the case, we must assume that as a young man Henry Davidson, similar to his friend William Baker, was attracted to the warmth of these people and the way that they lived out the particular convictions that set the River Brethren apart from other groups.17 The similarity of emphasis on a new birth before baptism must have felt familiar to the young Henry. Somehow the clarity of conviction that church order must insist on a single mode of baptism, triune immersion, appealed to him, as it had to his friend William Baker.18 Davidson’s attraction to the clarity of conviction that allowed for the warmth of testimonials where members told of their conversion experiences, their “sorrows, joys and future hope,” yet insisted on ordinances such as river baptism and foot washing rituals would have a far reaching impact on the denomination; fifteen years later in the 1860s it would claim the name Brethren in Christ, remaining distinct from the United Brethren in Christ of Henry Davidson’s origin.19
Although River Brethren pietism distinguished them from their Mennonite relatives with the insistence of the former, as Wittlinger has put it, on “a personal, heartfelt experience of the new birth as normative for the beginning of the Christian life,” their evangelism was practised in a quiet, relational way.20 It was the way they lived their faith that attracted others. Some, similar to William Baker and Henry Davidson, expressed the desire to become a part of a particular congregation, joining in the “full fellowship” that meant choosing to be baptized by triune immersion and to adopt the practices of those particular Brethren.21
It is impossible to fully understand the motives of another, but history does provide a way to know ourselves as individuals, as families, as churches, as societies, a way into becoming more deeply rooted as we are intentional about understanding faith in the context from which we came. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmerhas wisely suggested that “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”22 The formative role that Henry Davidson and his friend William Baker took in introducing to the Brethren in Christ changes that had marked the pietist movement from the eighteenth century, including communication through print culture, missions, and opportunities for women to serve in public ways, had far reaching effects on the denomination.23 As the Brethren in Christ (in Canada Be in Christ) continue to develop during these fast-changing and tumultuous times, with secularism and evangelicalism in head to head combat, both shaped by the pietist impulse with their privileging experience over authority, it is essential that we know our history.24
On a personal note as I have explained in the occasional series “Growing up Brethren in Christ,” published in Brethren in Christ History & Life, it is in the on-going attempt to come to deeper understanding of my own spiritual journey and the denomination in which I grew up that I continue to explore the lives and spirituality of my ancestors Henry Davidson and his daughter Frances Davidson.25 Indeed, my journey has taken me in the opposite direction to Henry Davidson with my journey away from my Brethren in Christ roots to eventually be ordained in the Mennonite Church, while serving as chaplain and professor in a Presbyterian theological school. As I reflect on how my spiritual journey has taken me out of the Brethren in Christ to the Mennonites and Presbyterian communities, I am curious about my ancestor’s journey. Henry Davidson’s spiritual quest took him away from his Presbyterian and United Brethren in Christ roots to a group founded by Jacob Engel, another seeker whose journey brought from his Mennonite roots, to establish a tiny group convicted of the efficacy of triune baptism. Thecuriousity of the detective continues to motivate me as I continue to explore, as Palmer has put it, “how much of the past lives in us today,” and to seek community among the great cloud of witnesses.26
1“Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54; See also Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor, Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 323.
2Nancy Theriot has explored the potential in reading texts in ways that the historian can attempt to understand something of how people from the past were making meaning from their lives. See her Mothers&DaughtersinNineteenth-CenturyAmerica:TheBiosocialConstructionofFemininity (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).
3Paul Hoffman, compiler, “History of the Davidson descendants,” printed in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” Robert K. Brechbill, printer (July 1973), 55.
7Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 53, 55; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 127, n 41.
8Douglas Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 205, 277, 278-79.
9Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 68.
10Paul A. Graham, “The Beginnings,” 45-46 and Raymond Waldfogel, 130, in Paul R. Fetters, TrialsandTriumphs:HistoryoftheChurchoftheUnitedBrethreninChrist (Huntington, IND: Church of the United Brethren in Christ Department of Church Services, 1984); See also William Hanby, “The United Brethren in Christ, in John Winebrenner, History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, PA: John Winebrenner, 1848), 550, 561; Carlton Wittlinger, QuestforPietyandObedience:TheStoryoftheBrethreninChrist (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 129-33.
13Wittlinger, Quest, 14, n. 41; see “A Familiar Friend,” in Winebrenner, History, 550-56.
14Evangelical Visitor I, 1 (1 August 1887), 9; In his biography, D. Ray Heisey, Healing Body and Soul: The Life and Times of Dr. W. O. Baker, 1827-1916 Grantham, PA: The Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004), 22, places 1854 as the year that Baker was baptized.
15A. W. Climenhaga, History of the Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1952), 55-56, 69.
16Homer Rosenberger, “Migrations of the Pennsylvania Germans to Western Pennsylvania,” Part II, 61 file:///C:/Users/lucille.marr/Downloads/3099-Article%20Text-2944-1-10-20121002%20(2).pdf Accessed August 2020.
22Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.
23Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 238, 275, 278-79, 285.
24Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 275-76; Indeed, in the view of McGill Emeritus professor philosopher Charles Taylor, both modern secularism and modern evangelicalism with their privileging experience and action are rooted in the seventeenth-century Pietist impulse. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 26-27.
25“Growing up Brethren in Christ,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Vol. XLI, no. II, no 1 (April 2020), 118-25.
26Palmer, Courage to Teach, 54. See, for example, Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.
Recent revelations that Mennonites participated in the crimes of National Socialism seem to fly in the face of common beliefs about this historically pacifist Christian denomination. Mennonites today are often advocates for peace. So what are we to make, for example, of a forthcoming book from the University of Toronto Press entitled European Mennonites and the Holocaust? A gulf looms between what we believe we know about peaceful Mennonites in the twenty-first century and what historians have begun revealing about the entanglement of a substantial minority within that same community with National Socialism during the 1930s and ‘40s. How can we bridge the gap? One path is to ask why this story has not been widely told until now. Who hid it and how?
After the Second World War, the primary narrative that Mennonite leaders in Europe and North America crafted about their churches’ activities in the Third Reich emphasized repression and hardship. The denomination’s leading aid organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), worked during the late 1940s and early 1950s to help resettle thousands of European Mennonites who had become displaced as a result of the war. MCC relied on financial and legal assistance from larger refugee agencies affiliated with the United Nations in order to pursue this task. In dealing with their United Nations colleagues, MCC officials insisted most of their wards “were brutally treated by the German occupation authorities” and “did not receive favored treatment.”1
One of Mennonite Central Committee’s star witnesses was a refugee named Heinrich Hamm. Like tens of thousands of other Mennonites who had experienced the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, Hamm was from Soviet Ukraine, and he had retreated westward with German troops in 1943 to avoid again coming under communist rule as Stalin’s Red Army advanced. Five years later, Hamm had become an MCC employee, helping to run a large refugee camp in occupied Germany. Hamm wrote down a version of his wartime experiences that aligned with MCC’s overall message that its charges deserved aid. MCC’s Special Commissioner in Europe passed to United Nations officials Hamm’s story of evacuating from Ukraine to more western areas:
It is quite an erroneous idea to think that all Mennonites were brought to Poland to be settled on farms. I and my family came to a camp Preussisch-Stargard in the Danzig area. Immediately representatives of various works and concerns came to fetch cheap labour. I had to work in a machine factory where I remained until the end of the war. Besides the four Mennonite families many Ukrainians, Frenchmen and Poles worked there also. There was no difference in the way these various national groups were treated.2
The efforts by Mennonite Central Committee to portray refugees like Heinrich Hamm as victims of Nazism were largely successful. Based on statements from MCC officers and many migrants themselves, refugee agents affiliated with the United Nations believed that “the majority of those [Mennonites] who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war had not come voluntarily to that country. They were deported alongside other Russians to be used as slave labourers.”3 As another evaluation concluded, Mennonites were fundamentally “an un-Nazi and un-nationalistic group.”4 MCC ultimately succeeded in relocating most of the refugees under its care with United Nations assistance to new homes in West Germany or overseas, mostly in Canada and Paraguay.
But should we, like United Nations refugee agencies seven decades ago, trust statements written after the Third Reich’s fall by Mennonite individuals such as Heinrich Hamm? When he wrote his account for MCC, Hamm was fifty-four years old. He was not some young hothead. He was a leader in the Mennonite church. He was an MCC employee with deep ties to the denomination’s respected aid community on both sides of the Atlantic. Hamm should have been as trustworthy as anyone MCC could have put forward to speak truthfully and extensively about the experiences of tens of thousands of fellow Mennonites in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. The United Nations took Hamm at his word. We today, however, should take a more skeptical look.
I have been following Heinrich Hamm’s wartime paper trail for the past seven years. It is not easy to track the movements of someone so mobile as Hamm. I now know that Hamm was born in Tsarist Russia in 1894. He served as a medic in the First World War and took up arms as part of a Self Defense unit during the Russian Civil War, abandoning pacifism like many other young Mennonite men. When Bolshevism emerged victorious, Hamm lost his farm near the Ukrainian city of Zaporozhe. He and his family moved to another city, Dnepropetrovsk, after Stalin’s rise. Hamm continued working in Dnepropetrovsk after the Nazi invasion of 1941. He eventually left Ukraine with his family, and in 1944, they settled in a village called Stutthof on the Baltic coast.
Another document I encountered while researching Mennonite history prompted me to suspect that the postwar autobiographical sketch Hamm penned for MCC might obscure more than it revealed. This other document had been written shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Ukraine by an “Ethnic German Heinrich Hamm.” Preserved in the records of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, the six-page typed manuscript tells of horrors experienced under “Jewish-Bolshevik rule.” It argues that the USSR repressed Ethnic Germans more than other groups. It describes how young men were shot or deported and how mismanagement brought economic ruin to all Ukraine. The author was unsparing in his conviction about whom to blame:
This is how the Jewish Bolshevik beasts destroyed German families [during communist times]. The expression ‘beasts’ is not even correct, since animals kill for the sake of nourishment, while these Jewish murderers and misbegotten bastards kill and annihilate for sport, practicing the worst kind of cruelty as their life’s handiwork.5
Could these be the words of a later MCC employee? An upstanding pillar within the worldwide Mennonite community? When I first saw this document, I was not convinced it had been written by the same Heinrich Hamm. Hamm was a common surname among Ukraine’s Mennonites and Heinrich a common first name. Surely there were multiple Heinrich Hamms. Nor was I sure that the author was even Mennonite at all. His report to Nazi officials mentioned other people with names common among Mennonites, but the document referred only to “Ethnic Germans,” not to Mennonites explicitly. Given the repression of Christianity in the Soviet Union in the proceeding decades, perhaps the author no longer identified with what had likely been his childhood faith.
I wondered, moreover, what should I make of the virulent antisemitism of this wartime Heinrich Hamm? Most published literature I had read about Mennonites in Ukraine claimed that they had not been particularly antisemitic. One historian characterized anti-Jewish prejudices among this group as “relatively benign.”6 But Hamm’s antisemitism was unrelenting. The report stated that Hamm lived in Dnepropetrovsk. Less than a month earlier, Nazi death squads shot ten thousand of that city’s Jews.7 The murder of Jews around him made Hamm’s concluding remarks chilling: “Only those who experienced [Soviet tyranny] can fully grasp the phrase, ‘Liberation from the Jewish yoke of Bolshevism,’ in its truest sense.”8 He finished by praising Hitler and all German soldiers.
My next clue was a 1943 letter—also penned by a “Heinrich Hamm”—posted from a refugee camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. This letter seemed to provide a link between the Hamm who had denounced Jews at the height of the Holocaust in Ukraine and the man who subsequently worked for MCC, claiming after the war that Mennonites were an un-Nazi group that suffered under the Third Reich. The author of this letter was clearly a Mennonite. He had relocated westward with other Mennonites from Ukraine to escape the advance of the Red Army. The author said he had traveled from Dnepropetrovsk, and details of his story overlapped with the account written two years earlier for Nazi occupation officials by a man of the same name in the same Ukrainian city.
The 1943 letter convinced me that Heinrich Hamm was not only a practicing Mennonite; he was a denominational leader. It also confirmed that this man—who would go on to work for MCC—was implicated in Nazi crimes. Hamm and his family were among the first Mennonite refugees to be relocated from Ukraine to Nazi-occupied Poland after the contraction of the Eastern Front. Temporarily housed near the city of Litzmannstadt in the wartime Wartheland province, Hamm wrote to a contact well connected with other Mennonites across the Third Reich. Copies of his letter soon circulated widely among the country’s church leadership. Part of Hamm’s letter even appeared in print, helping inspire humanitarian support for the refugees arriving from Ukraine.
Hamm reported that he and fellow refugees from Ukraine had been well received in Wartheland: “Upon arrival, we experienced unexpected love and a moving reception. Our camp—if it can even be called that—lies in the forest near Kirchberg (14 km. east of Litzmannstadt) and consists not of barracks encircled by barbed wire, as many expected, but of beautifully appointed houses (formerly for Jewish summer vacationers).” Hamm acknowledged that not all were satisfied with their new quarters. But he disparaged complainers as racial dregs. The “true Germans,” he wrote, “thank God and the Führer daily with tears in their eyes for the great privileges they enjoy.”9 In his view, the best Mennonites were those most thankful to receive plunder from murdered Jews.
Far from receiving criticism from Germany’s Mennonite leadership, Hamm’s 1943 letter helped integrate him into the local denominational fold. Mennonites who had lived in Germany since Hitler’s rise to power had enjoyed the privileges of racial hierarchy for over a decade. That these same advantages would be extended to fellow German-speaking Mennonites from Ukraine in the form of homes and goods taken from Holocaust victims seemed only natural by the middle years of the war.10 Hamm was intimately acquainted with Mennonite life in Ukraine, and he had ties to occupation officials.11 When religious leaders from Germany traveled to Poland in 1944 to meet with Nazi politicians about new waves of refugees from the east, they first consulted Hamm.12
By early 1944, Hamm and his wife, Anna, had moved from the formerly Jewish summer camp near Litzmannstadt to the coastal town of Stutthof, two hundred miles to the north. Stutthof had a longstanding Mennonite population, including one of Anna’s aunts. In Stutthof, Hamm became friendly with a prominent Mennonite businessman named Gerhard Epp. Prior to the First World War, Epp had worked in Russia, and he remained greatly interested in Mennonite coreligionists from the Soviet Union. Epp offered Hamm a job in a large machine factory that he owned and operated. This was the very establishment that Hamm would later mention in the memo he wrote for MCC, claiming he was coerced into providing cheap labor for greedy German war profiteers.
Closer inspection reveals Hamm was neither a lowly laborer nor does he seem to have opposed war profiteering that actually did occur in Epp’s factory. Three years after the Third Reich fell, shortly before boarding a steamship bound for Canada, Hamm wrote a long letter to his two sons. They had been serving in German uniform, and both had gone missing in the last months of the war. Hamm did not know when or if he would ever see his sons again. But he left his letter with a local Mennonite leader for safekeeping, hoping that if either of his sons ever resurfaced, they would read it. Hamm’s letter is dated July 23, 1948. He signed it just days after authoring his exculpatory memorandum for MCC. Writing privately to family, he told a very different story.
Hamm’s letter to his lost sons told of his final days in Stutthof, before the Red Army’s advance forced him to flee with his wife and her aunt, along with thousands of other Mennonites and non-Mennonites by ship across the Baltic to Denmark. In the winter of early 1945, Soviet air raids wrought havoc on nearby large cities like Danzig, driving city dwellers to the countryside even as others arrived pell-mell from the east. Gerhard Epp shipped his machinery west and converted his factory into a makeshift refugee camp. Hamm reported that Epp and his entire staff worked frantically to save the needy. The packed factory halls offered good targets for Soviet airmen, Hamm reported, and every bomb that struck the establishment killed or wounded hundreds:
The great number of bodies and the frozen ground made it impossible to bury them, and so specially appointed commandos for clearing away bodies brought these to the concentration camp for gassing [Vergasung].13
This casual reference to an unnamed nearby concentration camp is curious. Hamm seems to have expected his sons to understand the reference. Having visited their family in Stutthof before their final deployment, Hamm’s sons would have known about the large Stutthof concentration camp, which had been established in 1939 in connection with Germany’s invasion of Poland and which over the next five years would become a major site of slave labor and murder in Hitler’s empire of death. Gerhard Epp’s factory had grown along with this concentration camp. Epp served as a general contractor for the camp, and he leased hundreds of prisoners to produce armaments in his factory. Jews and other inmates were the true cheap labor. Hamm helped oversee their slavery.14
Hamm later expressed regret for the death and dying that pervaded the Epp factory in Stutthof. Yet he explicitly named only German victims of Soviet air raids, not Jewish concentration camp prisoners. “[M]uch, much blood of innocent women and children flowed on Epp’s land,” Hamm told his sons. “Uncountable, nameless dead… No one asked who they were, where they came from, nothing was recorded.”15 One wonders about the goal of this private postwar accounting. Was Hamm helping himself forget about Jews worked to the bone in Epp’s factory by recalling refugees he and Epp tried to save? His use of the word “gassing” suggests this possibility, since bodies of refugees could have been cremated, whereas exhausted Jews would have been gassed.
What is clear is that the Mennonite-owned factory in Stutthof was a place of terror. For hundreds of prisoners enslaved there, the factory’s Mennonite managers were responsible for much of that terror. It is also clear that after the war, Hamm tried to distance himself from this responsibility. He instead emphasized the suffering of his own family, which fled Stutthof in April 1945. As they crossed the Baltic under cover of night, a Soviet submarine torpedoed their ship. Hamm praised God for allowing the damaged vessel to make it to Denmark. The family remained in Denmark for the next eighteen months. Hamm emphasized his gratitude for the comfort he found during these lean times through worshiping with fellow Mennonite refugees and other Christians.
Hamm remained in touch with Mennonites in multiple countries during the early postwar years. From Denmark, he wrote to relatives in Canada, who published his communication in a church newspaper. Letters and material goods soon arrived both for the Hamms and other Mennonites in the area. Hamm coordinated this aid, disbursing dozens of food packets from North America to fellow refugees. When his family received permission to leave Denmark for Germany, they lived with Mennonites in Bavaria. Eight months later, the director of a Mennonite Central Committee refugee camp in Gronau, near the Dutch border, invited Hamm to be his deputy. Hamm took the job, and he worked for MCC in Gronau for nearly a year until leaving to join relatives in Canada.
Tracking Heinrich Hamm and his wartime activities has taught me that catching a Mennonite Nazi is hard work. Piecing together Hamm’s past took many years of laborious sifting through thousands of pages of historic documents. I found pieces of Hamm’s story scattered across half a dozen archives in four countries. The reason this search took so long and required such effort is that Hamm did not want me or anyone else to know his full tale. Collaborating with Nazism made sense to Hamm during the Second World War, when he denounced Jews in Ukraine, lived in housing confiscated from Holocaust victims in Poland, and helped to administer a factory run with slave labor in Stutthof. After the war, Hamm was not fully honest even with his own sons.
The rewards of studying Hamm’s complete wartime trajectory—not just what he wanted others to learn afterwards—are substantial. Hamm and his colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee wanted United Nations-affiliated refugee organizations and other interested parties to think that any collaboration by members of the denomination with National Socialism was exceptional and insignificant. They implied that if some young men had perhaps gotten carried away, surely this was because they had been drawn away from their faith during earlier experiences in the Soviet Union through the atheist policies of Bolshevik rule. This narrative may seem compelling if we only consider documents written after the war. But wartime records do not corroborate this story.
Hamm was a leader at the heart of Mennonite institutional life in Europe both during and after the Second World War. He and his family had certainly suffered under the Bolshevik regime. There is no question that he and tens thousands of other Mennonites experienced atrocities in the Soviet Union, and that this history of suffering conditioned their positive reception of National Socialism. Indeed, Hamm’s wartime writings show that he considered his support for the most heinous crimes of Hitler’s state to be directly related to his own efforts to aid fellow Mennonites. Hamm saw Jews and Bolshevism as being part of a single evil cabal that threatened his ethnic and faith communities, and he welcomed Nazi efforts to redistribute Jewish plunder as welfare.
Understanding Hamm’s wartime activities also helps to clarify the significance of Mennonite Central Committee’s European refugee operations. Were we to consider only MCC’s postwar reports to bodies like the United Nations, we might assume that the denomination’s premier aid organization was acting in good faith—that leaders were unaware of the Nazi collaboration of refugees like Hamm. But this reading cannot be supported. In a very literal sense, Hamm was MCC, a paid employee and spokesperson. And that was precisely the point. The very purpose of MCC’s refugee program was to assist people facing legal or material hardships because of their associations with Nazism. Employing wartime leaders like Hamm provided valuable expertise.16
Catching a Mennonite Nazi is not easy. It is not the kind of thing most people can accomplish in their spare time. It is only possible because of the enormous resources that states, universities, and churches have put into building and maintaining archival collections. Accessing these files often requires professional skills, such as the ability to read multiple languages. Guessing when a historical person may not have been telling the truth requires familiarity with what scholars have already written. And following up on such hunches frequently demands financial support from competitive grants. At a time when the humanities are increasingly under pressure, it is more important than ever to affirm the value of institutional support for deep investigative research.
The reach of the far right is often longer than we think. It has included influential leaders within the Mennonite denomination, including in its best-known humanitarian aid organization, MCC. That knowledge alone should justify robust support for strengthening commitment to academic scholarship in our current time of resurgent global intolerance and repressive authoritarianism.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Laureen Harder-Gissing for providing sources for this essay and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.
1 C.F. Klassen, “Statement Concerning Mennonite Refugees,” July 19, 1948, AJ/43/572, folder: Political Dissidents – Mennonites, Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, France (hereafter AN).
2 Quoted in ibid. Hamm signed other documents on MCC’s behalf while working at the Gronau refugee camp. For example, Heinrich Hamm to Walter Quiring, September 29, 1947, Cornelius Krahn Papers, box 5, folder: Walter Quiring Correspondence 1946-50, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.
3 Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, “Mennonite Refugees from Soviet Russia,” AJ/43/49, AN.
4 Martha Biehle to Herbert Emerson, August 9, 1946, AJ/43/31, AN.
5 Heinrich Hamm, “Schilderung vom Volksdeutschen,” November 12, 1941, Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm, T-81, roll 606, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA). Subsequent research confirms that this report was written by the same Heinrich Hamm who later worked for MCC. In ibid., for example, the author identified his father-in-law as David Schröder. David Schröder was also listed as Hamm’s father-in-law in genealogical materials submitted at the time of his (successful) application for German citizenship in Litzmannstadt. Heinrich Hamm, “Feststellung der Deutschstämmigkeit,” October 11, 1943, Einwandererzentralstelle Collection, A33420-EWZ50-CO46, Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo, ON, Canada. Notably, Hamm listed “men[nonite]” as his religious denomination on multiple documents submitted to Nazi offices. See for example a racial evaluation completed in Preußisch Stargard: “Hamm, Heinrich,” February 1, 1944, A3342-EWZ56-CO27, NARA.
6 Harvey Dyck, “Introduction and Analysis,” in Jacob Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life under Communist and Nazi Rule (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 47.
7 SD, “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, R 58/219, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany.
9 Heinrich Hamm to Franz Harder, October 6, 1943, German Captured Documents Collection, Reel 290, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA (hereafter LoC). Hamm’s contact, Franz Harder, was a Danzig-based genealogical researcher. Since 1942, Harder had been helping Hamm to compile a genealogical list proving his Aryan ancestry—a document useful for Hamm’s wartime employment in Nazi-occupied Ukraine as well as his eventual application for German citizenship. Hamm’s letter came to the attention of the leadership of Germany’s two largest church conferences via Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung and Verband, October 18, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS). It subsequently appeared in print as Heinrich Hamm, “Die Umsiedlung der Volksdeutschen aus Dnjepropetrowsk im September 1943,” Nachrichtenblatt des Sippenverbands Danziger Mennoniten-Famlien 8 (December 1943): 3-4.
10 Thousands of Mennonites in Ukraine had already received gifts of clothing and household goods taken from Holocaust victims, including Jews shot by mobile killings squads in Ukraine as well as others deported to industrial-scale concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Some Mennonite families in Ukraine had also moved into houses made available by the murder of previous Jewish residents. Privileges provided by Nazi occupiers to Ukraine’s Mennonites thus already depended on mass expropriation of supposed non-Aryans, so in 1943 when the retraction of the Eastern Front forced tens of thousands of Mennonites and other Ethnic Germans westward, the redistributive welfare practiced by Hitler’s functionaries again relied on plunder acquired through large-scale racial crimes. The Governor of the District of Galicia, for example, wrote during high-level debates about where to resettle Mennonites from Chortitza: “New settlements can currently only be facilitated through radical removal of the local population with no possibility of return…. In the longer term, around 20,000 hectares [50,00 acres] for settlement purposes could be made available through use of the former Jewish properties that are now under German administration.” Otto Wächter to Rudolf Brandt, October 21, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
11 For instance, a handwritten remark on a letter from Franz Harder to the German Foreign Institute identified Hamm as a confidant of Karl Stumpp, who led a Dnepropetrovsk-based commando of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Franz Harder to Deutsches Ausland-Institut, Forschungsstelle Danzig des DAI, and Kurt Kauenhowen, October 10, 1943, German Captured Documents Collection, reel 290, LoC. On Stumpp, see Eric Schmalz and Samuel Sinner, “The Nazi Ethnographic Research of Georg Leibbrandt and Karl Stumpp in Ukraine, and Its North American Legacy,” Holocaust & Genocide Studies 14, no. 1 (2000): 28-64.
12 “I now also intend to travel to Stutthof [prior to meeting with the political leadership of Reichsgau Wartheland] to visit Gerhard Epp and Heinrich Hamm (from Dnepropetrovsk). The latter has resettled there from Litzmannstadt. Would you come with me?” Benjamin Unruh to Abraham Braun, February 23, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. Unruh and Braun visited Epp and Hamm in Stutthof from March 23 to 25, 1944. Benjamin Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.
13 Heinrich Hamm to Benjamin Unruh, July 23, 1948, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 7, MFS.
14 Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 512-525. Although Hamm did not precisely describe his duties in Epp’s business (which he called “our factory”), he appears to have acted in an administrative capacity. “How wonderfully [God] saved us,” he remembered. “How often shards and bullets flew into our office, where I worked.” Hamm to Unruh, July 23, 1948.
15 Ibid. On the evacuation of Stutthof, see Danuta Drywa, “Stutthoff: Stammlager,” in Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 6, ed. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007),516-520; Marcin Owsiński, “Die Deutschen in Stutthof und Sztutowo,” in Die deutsche Minderheit in Polen und die kommunistischen Behörden 1945-1989 (Paderborn: Schoeningh Ferdinand, 2017), 292-296.
16 Hamm reported that as deputy director of the MCC’s Gronau refugee camp, where he worked from August 1947 until July 1948, his major activities included establishing a catalogue of all known Mennonite refugees in Europe and corresponding with multiple Allied governments to release Mennonite prisoners of war. “The MCC was able to secure many an early release for these men [who had served in Hitler’s armies] from all Allied authorities,” Hamm wrote of his work. “How radiant with joy all these boys were when they arrived in Gronau, where they were warmly welcomed.” Hamm to Unruh, July 23, 1948. Hamm and his family remained connected to the Mennonite church and to trans-Atlantic refugee operations after arriving in Canada in 1948. See for example Hans Werner, “Integration in Two Cities: A Comparative History of Protestant Ethnic German Immigrants in Winnipeg, Canada and Bielefeld, Germany, 1947-1989” (PhD diss., University of Manitoba, 2002), 111-112.
This past summer I found myself reviewing a number of classic early Anabaptist works as I researched and wrote a chapter on Anabaptist eschatology. As I researched and read I was struck by an unrelated phenomenon—the prevalence of the creeds in several of these writings. In the four years since I first began attending a Mennonite Church, I have sometimes heard Anabaptists referred to as non-creedal Christians. It is certainly true that, when asked to describe what it means to be Anabaptist, most Anabaptists will understandably give an answer that prioritizes doctrines and practices that are not common to the majority of Christian churches, particularly pacifism or credobaptism. Similarly, when drawing doctrinal boundaries around their churches (something they were as ready to do as the state churches, though not at the point of a sword), Anabaptists have tended to appeal to Scripture directly, since its authority superseded any creeds and confessions, however valuable.1 Nevertheless, insofar as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds can be said to summarize the essentials of the Christian faith, the earliest Anabaptists upheld these teaching with only a few exceptions.
Of these exceptions, the anti-Trinitarianism of Adam Pastor and of the Polish Brethren was never particularly popular, and in Pastor’s case resulted in his being banned. The more significant exception is Melchior Hoffman’s Christology—his assertion that Christ took no human flesh from Mary, who served only as a vessel, and instead possessed his own, celestial flesh. Menno Simons also adopted and promulgated this Christology—indeed it was one of the most significant features the Mennonites inherited from their predecessors the Melchiorites as they sifted through the legacy of Münster and determined what to retain and what to rebuke. Despite Menno and Dirk Phillips’ defense of this doctrine, support for it faded over the ensuing centuries, as the Dutch Mennonites made common cause with Swiss Anabaptists.2 This teaching was not necessarily irreconcilable with the letter of the Apostles’ Creed (they did still believe Christ to be born of the virgin Mary) but it was unquestionably a departure from the way these creeds had historically been interpreted. Nevertheless, the Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janzs van Braght, writing in the seventeenth century, had no trouble including the Apostles’ Creed in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a distillation of true, simple faith, and he described the three representative seventeenth-century confessions of faith that followed as elaborations on this core creed.3
The most enthusiastically creedal of the early Anabaptists was undoubtedly Balthasar Hubmaier. He referred often to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith. He considered acquiescence to and understanding of these articles a prerequisite for baptism and included them in his Christian Catechism, published in early 1527.4 During his 1526 imprisonment in Zurich, he even produced a devotional writing centered entirely around the Apostles’ Creed. He expanded upon the creed’s articles and transformed it into a prayer by changing the pronouns for God from the third to the second person, expressing the comfort and hope that he found in these doctrines.5 He also found the Apostles’ Creed polemically useful and appealed to it to advocate against the doctrine of transubstantiation and for believers’ baptism.6 As far as Hubmaier was concerned, the form of Christianity for which he advocated was not only compatible with these twelve articles, it was in fact more faithful to them than Catholic, Zwinglian, or Lutheran forms of Christianity.
The Hutterite Theologian Peter Riedemann likewise drew extensively on the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote his Confession of Faith during his imprisonment in the early 1540s. The Creed formed the scaffolding of the first part of the confession, as he elaborated on each clause: his beliefs on God the Father, the creation of Heaven and earth, Christ the son, the incarnation, and so forth. In choosing this framework, Riedemann appealed to many beliefs he held in common with his captors, but he also provided a distinctly Anabaptist gloss on these beliefs, emphasizing the importance of gathering a church without spot or wrinkle.7 He then went on to elaborate the points where Hutterite teaching diverged, including believers’ baptism, community of goods, and opposition to warfare.
Hymnody has long been a method of doctrinal formation for Anabaptists, and the second hymn of the Ausbund provided the faithful in Switzerland with the opportunity to rehearse the teachings of the creeds. The hymn is described as “the Christian faith, in song form,” and consists of three verses, one for each person of the Trinity. It appears to be an attempt to harmonize the two principal Christian creeds: it contains elements unique to the Apostles’ Creed, such as Christ’s descent into hell, as well as to the Nicene Creed, such as the description of Christ as “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father” and the mention of baptism. At times, it elaborates further than either Creed. Nearly half of the stanza on God the Father lists “things visible” he has created—plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, and humans—before concluding with a mention of “things invisible.”8
The first generation of Anabaptists all converted as adults, after having already received some amount of Christian spiritual formation. These creeds formed part of the foundation that they brought with them into their new understanding of Christianity. Even as they were foundational, however, they were largely taken for granted—unlike nonresistance or believers’ baptism, the creeds were never under attack by either Catholics or magisterial Protestants. The creeds, then, could be seen as a quieter, less visible part of early Anabaptist identity—not particularly useful to distinguish Anabaptists from other Christians or explain the persecution they suffered, but nevertheless a useful description of the God in whom they trusted and the future for which they hoped.
1 They did, however, consistently engage in the work of attempting to formulate confessions that they felt faithfully reflected Scripture. See Karl Koop (ed.), Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, 1527-1660, second edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).
2 For more, see C. Arnold Snyder, “Christology” in Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997), 375-390.
3 Thieleman Janzs van Braght, Het Bloedig Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts et al., 1685). https://books.google.com/books?id=UxmlV7PyedoC Support for the Melchiorite formulation of the Incarnation was already reduced by this point. The seventeenth-century van Braght includes take no firm position but instead acknowledge the longstanding debate among the Brethren on this question and content themselves with describing Christ’s incarnation as miraculous, however unknowable the specifics might be.
4 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Christian Catechism which Everyone Should Know Before He Is Baptized” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 349; Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Form for Baptism in Water of Those Who Have Been Instructed in Faith” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 387.
5 Balthasar Hubmaier, “The Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith, Phrased in the Form of a Prayer at Zurich on the Water Tower” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 235-240.
6 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Letter to Oecolampad” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 70.
7 Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith, translated by Kathleen E. Hasenberg (Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 38.
8Ausbund, Das Ist Etliche Schöne Christliche Lieder, Wie Sie in Dem Gefängnis zu Passau in dem Schloss von den Schweizer-Brüdern und von Andern Rechtglaubigen Christen Hin und Her Gedichtet Worden (Lancaster: Johann Baer and Sons, 1856), 5-8. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ausbund/VKZXSla-jKoC
The pamphlet reproduced below was first published by the U.S. Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section in 1976. Collecting papers from a 1974 conference at Koinonia Mennonite Church in Clinton, Oklahoma, In Search of Peace: A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites was a challenging document when it was first published, and it remains so today. The brief chapters below, which readers can navigate to using the table of contents links, will be relevant for historians who concern themselves with Mennonite life in North America during the 1970s, for Mennonite theologians who are search for anti-racist resources in the tradition, and for peace workers and advocates who are interested in the history of Mennonite activism, especially in relation to the Mennonite Central Committee’s Minority Ministries Council.
In a letter from the MCC Canada offices in Winnipeg, Daniel Zehr, director of Peace and Social Concerns, recommends the pamphlet, warning that “To the extent that we white Mennonites have unwittingly or consciously become part of the oppressor, much of what is written here will be disquieting.” My hope in preparing this online edition is that by making its contents accessible this text can resume its disquieting task of unsettling the social and epistemic violence of white supremacy – especially following the Trump administration’s egregious “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” of September 22, 2020.
The Preface by Hubert Schwartzentruber sets the stage for the pamphlet by pointing to the framing idea of the conference from which the contributions are drawn: “Peace is meaningless unless we work to end the reasons for violence.” His closing line ought to resonate even more deeply during this unprecedented year of protest against police violence: “Until there is justice there will be no peace.” Chapter 1 then provides “A Native American View” of peace and justice from Lawrence H. Hart, in which the author argues for a de-mythologizing revision of white history to account for the peace work of American Indians – a task that Hart has since undertaken in his work through the Cheyenne Cultural Center. Following Hart’s call to active peacemaking, Chapter 2 offers “An Afro American View” by Tony Brown. Brown too calls for active peacemaking, while speaking against the racism of the American military and calling for critical peace education against the appeal of the military life. The “Chicano View” provided by Lupe De Leon, Jr. in Chapter 3 further resists American imperialism and militarism, calling members of historic peace churches to “go beyond mere humanistic values and incorporate the values of ‘carnalismo’ into our ethics.” Lastly, Chapter 4 by editor Emma LaRocque outlines “Dynamics of Oppression,” clearly presenting the complex problems of oppression, colonization, and suffering in terms that would have been – and may yet be – accessible to a wide readership of both laypeople and academics. My hope in providing this digital edition is that its contents would be read and considered again today, just as MCC and the authors hoped in the 1970s.
The following is a faithful copy of the original pamphlet. I have preserved the spelling and paragraphing of the original, and indicated pagination in square brackets where the first number refers to the page that has ended and the second refers to the page that follows (excluding blank pages like page 4). I have corrected only a few typos (‘acheive’, ‘succesful’, ‘agressively’, ‘suffiency’) and I have retained the use of underlining that appears in the original. I am happy to provide a PDF scan of the document for anyone who is interested. With the exception of the bibliographical entries, I have also silently updated the spelling of the editor’s name to accord with how it appears on her current faculty profile (which in the document reads ‘Emma LaRoque’). I have also provided a few footnotes with references to sources used in the text, as well as slightly updated contributor bio notes below. Lastly, I would like to thank Joel Nofziger for his editorial efforts, and Laura Kalmar from MCC Canada for permission to reprint this resource.
Dr. Emma LaRocque (now professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba).
Hubert Schwartzentruber (served with his wife June Schwartzentruber at Bethesda Mennonite Church in St. Louis, and then on the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries).
Lawrence H. Hart (a traditional peace chief of the Cheyenne Nation and founder of the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Oklahoma).
Tony Brown (a baritone singer and peace advocate who teaches at Hesston College and directs the Peacing It Together program).
Lupe De Leon, Jr. (a Mennonite minister and Chicano activist, former co-executive secretary of the Minority Ministries Council, a project within the Mennonite Board of Missions until 1973).
In Search of Peace
A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites
Emma LaRocque, Editor.
Originally published in 1976 by the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section (U.S.).
A man in the Baltic town of Gdańsk sits at the bedside of his son and weeps. It is the morning of October 26, 1709. The young man is ailing with plague which has swept through the region. The son’s affliction follows the death of his mother a few weeks prior in early September. As the son lies dying, the door to the parlour opens and closes. The father sees no one. But the son sets eyes on his mother, bright and clear, a vision of hope who reassures him that he will soon be with her again. They talk for some fifteen minutes. The clock chimes and the door open and closes. The bright spirit of the woman is gone but she leaves behind the promise that the son will join her soon. And true to her word, the disease takes him too.1
In 1709 deadly plague came to the Baltic regions, spreading up along trade and military routes from southern Poland, part of a larger pandemic which spread through central Asia and the Mediterranean in the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Though it took time to reach the city, and despite control measures, Gdańsk did not escape. In March 1709 a family in a district of the old town fell sick, seven people died, and it was evident that the plague had come to the city. Despite this, one pastor still held a sermon to celebrate the city’s escape, perhaps a ‘super spreader’ event in today’s parlance. The disease’s inevitable growth turned into a twenty-five-week epidemic with twenty-five thousand dead in the city out of a population of only fifty thousand.2
The plague hit the Mennonites hard, as it did the rest of the city of Gdańsk. In the records kept by the Flemish branch of the Danzig (Gdańsk) Mennonite church, a total of 409 people died in this community alone in one year, with most of those deaths concentrated in the last quarter. September, the month that the unnamed man’s wife died, was particularly bad, with 6 or 7 people often dying in one day in this small community. By the end of 1709 the figures amounted to 66 men deceased, 72 women, 18 young women and 4 young men. 249 people died who are not listed separately as they were unbaptised, mostly children.3 The extent of loss is evident from the stark reality of the numbers, but rarely do we see material like this document, a letter written by the man to his relatives in Altona. It is a special testimony to experiences of death and illness amongst these Mennonites. The man lost his wife, his two sons, Johann and Cornelius, his sister Sara, his brother Johann, his brother-in-law Paul and his mother. He was left alone to contemplate his grief.
The letter underscores the physical impact of a devastating illness but also the power of emotional deterioration. These experiences paralleling one another. Both seem to break down the boundaries between the spirit and the body, the dead and the living. Visions abound in the story that the man relates to his relatives. The unnamed man described the worsening state of his son saying that he ‘raged’ or was delirious, using the verb ‘rasen’ suggesting he had lost his senses. However, the son’s delirium was mirrored by the derangement of the father who wept at his son’s side and was distraught. His grief had some of the same symptoms of his son.4 And it was in a dissociative state, in a dream, that the father’s grief led to visions which mirrored the fevered conjurings of his son. His brother-in-law Paul appears to him three times—once after his wife’s death, once after his son Johann’s, and once in the summer of 1720. On the second visit, the spirit of Paul says:
“Your son Johann has also come to us. I cannot describe to you the joy, which your wife had with little Cornelius, when she saw Johann arrive.”
These visions and visitations are a strange mix of emotional and physical derangement, disassociation and altered states of consciousness when margins become blurred at moments of stress and conflict. The dream-state seems to be a way in which this man expresses his deep loss and grief, his despair contrasted with the joy of his dead family.5 Telling stories seems to soothe his pain. He retells the dream narrative in his letter but dreams themselves can also be seen as subconscious stories we tell ourselves. The father weeps but Paul tells his brother-in-law that, “Our spirits coalesced in love ( he uses the verb ‘verschmelzen’) and there was the greatest joy.” In the dream where he can contact the other world, the father can touch the blessed happiness of the afterlife. The whole letter is steeped in anguish and despair but also hope and love. Does narrating the pain in these tales ease his grief, or merely make him relive it?
The visiting spirits bring knowledge hidden from living men. The mother’s spectre seems to know who will die, although the brother-in-law Paul is only able to give notice of who has arrived in his spiritual world and does not have news of the future. The man even confesses he had made a strange pact with his relative, a pact which looks something like a devilish deal to know the unknowable—what life after death was like. The writer interjects a warning that this should not be copied by others. There is no suggestion that the pact was to be frowned upon in his case but dealings with the world of spirits were dangerous. That the spirits and dreams coincide with the striking of the clock makes it read like a ghost story and there is an otherworldly element to the narrative.6
The powerful interaction between the living and dead is perhaps surprising in a Mennonite letter, but the vision painted evokes a world of light, love and truth. The brother-in-law’s spirit describes the afterlife as if there were first a waiting room, a cavern to which he goes before he is transported to the community of the blessed. The spirit stresses that the wonderful place he now inhabits is the kingdom of the elect. Yet he also reminds his relative that human action on earth could not affect one’s fate beyond the veil. All the weeping and sighing is useless unless there is an inherent unity with the elect.
The father seems to have a longing for death; there is a glimmer in the letter of the transformation that comes with dying and his desire to join the elect.7 Perhaps he just wished to be with his family again but there was a clear sense of the unity of the true community in the afterlife. The son Cornelius also has a moment of joyous realisation when he feels the symptoms of illness and sees his mother. He shouted:
‘‘Dear father, thank God, I am also now so ill, now I will die, and be with my dear mother. O, if I were only already there.’
These are not the words of a man filled with fear and worry but of expectation at being reunited with his mother. There is something deeply touching and personal in these confessions, the suggestion of the tension in the joy the father should feel in the knowledge that his dead family are in the community of the elect and his conviction that he will perhaps soon join them. After all, he is part of the true church on earth. But yet the letter suggests he is not fully comforted; at the level of individual experience, the chasm still remains between the living and the dead.
This is a profoundly moving letter written in a moment of crisis, laying bare the grief and loneliness of a man nearly all of whose family have died and left him on earth. This is also why it so revealing as it throws up questions about the interplay between death and life, presence and absence, the individual and the community, grief and hope. But it is also in these moments of loss, suffering and emotional crisis that we can examine the threads that kept Mennonite communities together. Particularly striking, is the brother-in-law’s description of the marvellous number of those in the afterlife – more than the sand at the sea or the stars in the sky. The widower without his children though remains, as he says, completely alone.
1 ‘Copeij eines Schreibens aus Danzig’, 1720, Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Small Archives, Box 1733, Folder 2.
2 Karl-Erik Frandsen, The Last Plague in the Baltic Region 1709-1713 (Copenhagen, 2010), 26. On the plague in Danzig see also E. Kizik (ed.), Dżuma, ospa, cholera. W trzechsetną rocznicę wielkiej epidemii w Gdańsku i na ziemiach Rzeczypospolitej w latach 1708–1711. Materiały z konferencji naukowej zorganizowanej przez Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Gdańska i Instytut Historii PAN w dniach 21–22 maja 2009 (Gdańsk 2011) and the contemporary account Johann Christoph Gottwald, Memoriale Loimicum, Oder Kurtze Verzeichnüß, Dessen, LoimicumWas in der Königl. Stadt Dantzig, bey der daselbst Anno 1709. hefftig graßirenden Seuche der Pestilentz, sich zugetragen, Nach einer Dreyfachen Nachricht, aus eigener Erfahrung auffgesetzet und beschrieben (1710).
3 H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origjn and History from 1569-1919, trans. Victor G. Doerksen, ed. and annotated Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen (Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, 2007; co-published with Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario).
5 On sleep, dreams and visions see Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT, 2016); Janine Riviere, Dreams in Early Modern England (London and New York, 2017).
6 On dealing with the discernment of spirits see Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London and New York, 2007); Laura Sangha, ‘ “Incorporeal Substances”: Discerning Angels in Later Seventeenth-Century England’, in Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen (eds), Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period (Leiden, 2012), 255–277; Elizabeth Tingle, ‘Ghost Stories: Noël de Taillepied’s Pischologie ou apparition des esprits (1587) and the Rehabilitation of Purgatory in Late Sixteenth-Century France’, in Elizabeth Tingle and Jonathan Willis (eds), Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe (Abingdon and New York, 2015), 175– 196
7 On grief and suffering in Protestant theology see Ronald K. Rittgers, ‘Grief and Consolation in Early Modern Lutheran Devotion: The Case of Johannes Christoph Oelhafen’s Pious Meditations on the Most Sorrowful Bereavement (1619)’, Church History 81.3 (2012), 601-630.